In January 2022, when Novak Djokovic was embroiled in the deportation drama in Australia for being unvaccinated against Covid, it seemed like he had no friends. The fiasco had kicked off a domestic furore and international criticism was stinging.
But he did make a few hearts feel full and one of those was young James McCabe’s. The 19-year-old Australian, who reached his first-ever ATP Challenger semifinal at the Bengaluru Open on Friday, practised twice with Djokovic – once immediately after the Serb was released from immigration detention and then before Djokovic was expelled.
“It was absolutely amazing,” McCabe said. “I had played the Australian Open qualifying and lost in three sets. I thought I’d take the next day off. At 12 o’ clock my phone rang. Someone asked, ‘Do you want to hit with Djokovic in 30 minutes at Rod Laver Arena.’ I was like ‘yeah!’. That was probably my quickest shower, and the quickest I have ever run to the car.”
Back then, McCabe was ranked 1211 in singles, having just started on the pro tour. Now, he is on the cusp of breaking into the top-300. Still, there is nothing to top his meeting with Djokovic.
“He is one of the nicest guys I have ever met. The way he plays and conducts himself, such a gentleman. I really wanted him to come back to Australia and win it.
“When I was very small (2013) I was at the coin toss of his match against David Ferrer and I picked Ferrer to make the call and everyone was laughing. Djokovic actually remembered that when I reminded him and that felt nice.
“I was sad to see him get kicked out and after that I made a post [on Instagram]. It [the practise] has got to be the highlight of my career.”
Like many Australians, McCabe’s is a multi-faceted personality. He dabbled in cricket and swimming and is in love with music. He learnt piano and guitar and plays the flute, in which he has an Associate in Music, Australia degree. Incorporating the cadences from Western Classical music to his on-court play is something he truly believes in.
“Before matches I always listen to classical music…Beethoven, Chopin. I think Djokovic does the same. And flute helps with my breathing. You breathe into the diaphragm and it’s second nature to me. It helps get my heart rate down. So flute and music have been great.”
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